I turned in and slowed down to keep to the required 5 miles per hour up the long straight drive of Greenwood Gardens. A graceful allée of enormous mature London plane trees stretched up to my left on a green lawn. I thought – how did they do this? It was stunningly beautiful and completely quiet. In a seeming blink of an eye, my friends had created an escape to an Old World peacefulness in the midst of our contemporary craziness.
In the leafy neighborhood of Short Hills, New Jersey along the Watchung Mountains where the Lenape tribe once fished and hunted, Peter and Sofia Blanchard have brought a garden oasis back to life: Twenty eight acres of gardens, meadows and woodland with 11 historic buildings were opened to the public in 2013.
Only a short hour from the booming midtown of New York City, Greenwood Gardens is a gracious, hospitable and ever so quiet respite for gardeners, photographers, artists, families, neighbors and tourists seeking art, culture and the joy that comes with nature.
The house was originally home to the Day Family. In 1907, Joseph P. Day, a top New York City auctioneer and real estate developer, bought a small farmhouse on 100 acres. With the guidance of William Renwick, Joseph Day created a beautiful home, garden and estate that flourished with the family’s fortune. The Great Depression, however, took its toll on the Day family and the house and gardens were abandoned until Peter P. Blanchard Jr. and his wife bought the dilapidated retreat in 1949.
Inspired by their trips to Europe and France, the couple built a new house, a gracious and smaller red brick colonial revival, and restored the gardens to their original glory enhanced by rows of boxwood, London plane trees, Norway spruce and long corridors of trees and hedges that separate the garden into various outdoor rooms and ledges. They called their home The Greenwoods.
The garden fell into some disrepair after Peter Blanchard Jr died but his son, Peter Blanchard III, was also an ardent preservationist and wanted to keep the land and create something of public value at the same time. In 2000, he and his wife Sofia, an experienced not-for-profit leader, came up with a plan to once again restore and repair the house and its gardens to their illustrious past and more. With their love, dedication and professionalism, Peter and Sofia won the hearts and support of the prestigious Garden Conservancy, and Greenwood Gardens is now one of the 16 gardens endorsed by the prestigious Garden Conservancy as a Preservation Project Garden. The board of trustees and staff are dedicated to preserving the history and enhancing the beauty of the property for the benefit of the public.
Peter and Sofia were keen not only to return the house and grounds to Peter’s past but also to the past of the Day family. It was the Days, along with William Renwick, who created the original framework of the garden, the buildings and garden hardscape. Vestiges of the Day family’s design and attention to detail are also visible in the Rookwood ceramics and Fulper tiles.
One enters the garden at the front of the house and visitors follow the path through the columns to an outdoor pavilion where tea and cookies await all visitors. The pavilion leads to a wonderful stone and grassy terrace that surrounds the front of the house. Staircases fall away at various points from the terrace leading visitors to a mix of beautiful straight-aways and curving stone paths that eventually end at teahouses or special patios. Italian statuary, formal beds of peonies, roses, tulips and allium create eye-catching spring orderliness with a backdrop of vistas to lawns stretching invitingly down to ponds or woods. It is easy to feel pleasantly lost as one curvy path leads to another and then another.
One of my favorite places is a former reflecting pool, the Garden of the Zodiac, which is not yet completely repaired. Surrounded by classical Doric columns in a half circle, its state of half repair is evocative of a bygone era, a reminder of former grandeur.
Another highlight of the gardens are the magnificent pieces of sculpture placed artistically throughout – on either sides of staircases, along stone pathways and in fountains. A row of fabulous prancing horses line one stone pathway while gnomes, kings and queens greet visitors at the start of staircases and at the end of walkways. Still to this day, the boxwood perfumes the garden and gracefully separates grassy terraces and distinct sections.
Peter and Sofia Blanchard, along with their team of donors, staff and advisors, made the garden’s stated goals to advance horticulture, garden preservation, environmental education and land conservation. The mission is to provide a serene hideaway, an oasis where one can get one’s bearings, redirect thoughts and energies, and establish life’s priorities.
That said it is not just the beautiful nature that brings visitors back time and time again to Greenwood, but also the creative programming. Every week from May to November, and even in the winter months, when the garden is closed, there are classes, garden walks, tours and events. A sample of programs from this past spring included bird walks, plant walks, chair yoga, beekeeping workshops, honey extraction demonstrations, cell phone photography workshop, nature writing, a jazz picnic and a Chinese cultural evening. Often, Greenwood will choose an artist or theme to highlight among its panoply of wonderful programs. Last year, the contemporary artist Betty Goodman exhibited six cast bronze and hand-patinated, colorful benches as well as a bronze table and two large outdoor clay flower pots.
WHEN YOU GO:
Greenwood Gardens is open to the public Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday from early May to early November. Admission is charged. Visitors can travel to the gardens by train or car. Visit the garden’s website for these options and exact directions. To learn more about Greenwood Gardens and its educational programs, go to www.greenwoodgardens.org or call 973-258-4026.
Victoria Larson is an avid traveler with a love of gardens and horticultural destinations.